Wednesday, August 18, 2010


A minute or two into his presentation, Pradeep Chakravarthy broke into a song. It was actually a wonderful rendition of a verse by Sundaramurthy Nayanar on the life and times of the Chola period – life and times of a city that was not yet Madras, but bears such a resemblance to the life and times of these days. If you are wondering if it was a musical drama on the life and times of Madras during the Chola era, you are wrong.

It was a perfect presentation, as perfect as you get them. The villages, spreading from Tiruvottriyur to Mylapore – of the modern day, of course – were the samples of a republican form of government gained root. Yes, the vastness of the kingdom meant that the king was only a titular head, of course more powerful than the rubber stamps we have today. Everyone down the line handled their responsibilities admirably and with such integrity. The fear of punishment even drove a few to suicide.

It is a rather surprising revelation from Pradeep that the percentage of religious and mythological detail in the inscription on the walls of the villages – during the Chola era – was zero! The inscriptions, mainly in Tamil and Sanskrit with a bit of Telugu or Kannada thrown in detail more of the social life and governance of those days. Such a treasure is often lost to renovation and modernization – irrevocably most of the times. Most of these inscriptions talk of gifts made to the kingdom, landmark judgments, landholdings, etc.

These inscriptions were found in places as far as Manali, Tiruvottriyur, Mylapore, Tiruvallikeni, and many more. Most importantly, all these spoke of things that happened far and wide. For example, you could find an inscription in Manali about some aspect of life in faraway Thiruvidanthai, on ECR of today!

The territorial divisions according to the inscriptions were country, state (known as mandalam), district (kutram, Kottam, or valanadu), taluk (nadu), city (tani ur), town (agaram, mangalam) and village (ur) – I simply hope that I have got them right. Administration was through a mix of central authority and regional autonomy. Overall administration rested with the Alunganathars (Executive Committees); the Eri Variyam took care of lakes and water bodies; the Pon Variyam checked the quality of the gold donated/paid to the Mahasabha.

Temple properties were probably managed by the committees in Manali and Velacheri, the collection of dues was the responsibility of Tirusulam, Velacheri and Koyambedu and the policing was done by the kavalkarars of Tiruvottriyur. Taxes were collected from land owners, who were both private and communal. Land could be sold to anyone. The rough calculation was that you could get a kilo of rice for what would be 0.0001 paise!

The major professionals of those times were weavers, gold- and blacksmiths, oil mongers, watchmen, upperalathan (salt pan worker), potter, merchants (They even had guilds, and had understanding with other guilds too. They also offered protection to immigrants called nanadesis!), devadasis and savarnnas (doctors!). The first strike recorded during those times was the one called and observed by the devadasis! In fact, intervention of many levels did not assuage the devadasis; they repeatedly went on strike. Only the intervention of the king finally led to some semblance of agreement.

While inscriptions still have so many stories to tell, Pradeep is rightly saddened and aghast at the fact that whatever little we have are being lost to modernity. Even in those days, there were inscriptions that were older inscriptions – they just mentioned that they were copies of some earlier inscription that should not be lost to renovation. That foresight and awareness is sadly lacking today, and any conservation always begins with a round of sand-blasting – a sure way to lose them permanently.

And when Pradeep ended with an appeal to preserve the inscriptions, the rather respectable crowd was awaiting with questions. His presentation was lucid, very understandable and not heavy at all on the crowd considering the rather historical nature of the subject. He took questions with aplomb, and unlike most erudite history researchers, was quick to accept that he did not know some facts.

The end of another wonderful evening, when Pradeep began with a bang and ended with, er, another bang, left me wondering with another small matter. Pradeep is one helluva speaker, but I would love to have him sing too – given his multifaceted nature, I am sure he can wear two hats at the same time and look handsome too!

I am not sure this is as accurate as the subject deserves – these are only notes of what I heard and what found a place in my scrapbook. Apologies in advance if any errors have crept in – these are purely by oversight and unintentional.


Blogger rajaram said...

I have been reading Pradeep's articles in the Hindu Friday Review. He was quite erudite, as well as exhaustive.

However, unlike your other entries in this week's blog, this of course says more about the content than about the author.

good on that :)


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